Beginning in 1985, David Bohm put forward a series of propositions regarding a new vision for contemporary dialogue. This vision received considerable attention throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. But despite such widespread interest in Bohm's vision, the sustainability of dialogue seems to have been erratic, even meager.
'I think people are not doing enough work on their own, apart from the dialogue groups'
Shortly before his death in 1992, David Bohm made a curious remark regarding the vagaries of dialogue. The conversation had to do with why dialogue groups struggled so much, why many people felt discouraged with the process after serious and sustained attempts to exploit its potential. 'I think people are not doing enough work on their own, apart from the dialogue groups,' Bohm offered. 1
This observation seems paradoxical, not least because dialogue is by general definition a collaborative process, and by Bohm's definition one which seeks to move beyond a sense of strict individualism and open into a domain of collective,participatory fellowship. The notion of working 'on one's own' would seem to circumvent the very essence of dialogue itself.
We can begin to unravel this paradox by recognizing that Bohm's work in dialogue derives from a larger context of inquiry that had captured his imagination for decades. In tracing the origins of Bohm's ideas on dialogue, we find that virtually all of his published material on this topic was excerpted from meetings and seminars in which dialogue was an outgrowth of more fundamental issues regarding the nature of consciousness and experience per se. In most of these seminars an examination of the ego, and the ego's compulsive insistence on stabilizing its perceived territory, played a central role. Bohm claims that the ramifications of the ego process - both individual and collective - are at the root of human fragmentation and suffering. At the heart of his dialogue proposal was the prospect that awareness of the movement of ego, willingly engaged in by a number of people simultaneously, might quicken insights into the ego process that could take much longer if approached only on an individual basis.
After a few years of these meetings, Bohm's thoughts on dialogue were collected in a small self-published booklet, On Dialogue. Intended primarily for distribution to those on the mailing lists of the 'Bohm seminars' this booklet sold a surprising 20,000 copies.2 While covering many of the central features of dialogue, the booklet nonetheless contained relatively little overt emphasis on the nature of the ego. This was in part due to the fact that its initial target audience was already familiar with this territory, either through having attended meetings with Bohm or through having read transcripts of those meetings. Effectively, then, a 'shorthand' version of dialogue - a pithy but incomplete extraction - found its way into mainstream culture.
This contextual gap between 'short-hand' dialogue and Bohm's larger themes helps to clarify his suggestion that 'people need to do more work on their own.' Bohm was likely signaling the need to reintegrate the shorthand dialogue vision with its origin - that is, a keen and sustained awareness of the movement of the ego in daily life. Working outside the dialogue setting, and bringing the fruit of that inquiry back into the group, might provide the missing element that could bring dialogue to its full potential.
Three Aspects of Wholeness
In attempting to re-establish the wholeness of Bohm's vision, we will examine three areas that are often absent from popular presentations of dialogue. Though hardly exhaustive, this short list - the self-image, the body, and meaning - will perhaps give some indication of the richness of inquiry that is available to those interested in the full scope of Bohm's inquiry. As outlined here, these three areas are explored as they might look if a person were to work 'on their own.' How this exploration might look in the context of a dialogue group is a fascinating topic, perhaps one to be pursued in a later essay.
The first area is self-image, or ego. As it will be discussed here, ego is not necessarily a chest-beating, get-out-of-my-way-I'm-the-best-in-the-world mentality. Rather, basic ego, or self-image, is simply the sense that wherever I go, whatever I do, whatever I think, there is a portable 'me' that is always there - the very one who goes, does, and thinks. This sense of 'me' as an essential and indispensable interior entity seems to form the basis for our existence in the world; all aspects of experience are felt to flow from it, and refer back to it.
content of the self-image is identical with our image of 'the world' - any value or assumption that is experienced internally has an external correlate, usually perceived as 'how things are'
Coexistent with this sense of 'me' is an enormous cache of values, views, assumptions, aspirations, struggles, desires, and fears, any one of which may act as the vanguard for the entire ego structure. In Bohm's view, this content of the self-image is identical with our image of 'the world' - any value or assumption that is experienced internally has an external correlate, usually perceived as 'how things are'. If I see the driver in the lane next to me as bumbling and incompetent, this would be reflected inwardly by a tacit image of myself as a skillful and responsive driver. These two apparently different images are actually as inseparable from one another as one side of a brick is from the other side. Bohm's term for this mutually dependent structuring was 'self-world view'. In the remainder of this essay we will thus use the terms ego, self-image, and self-world view interchangeably.
In contemporary Western civilization, examination of the self-image is predominantly oriented toward some version of ego-modification. From this perspective, the basic structure and value of the ego is taken for granted, the operative question being whether or not my ego is in satisfactory condition. If it is not in satisfactory condition, I will follow some kind of methodology for bringing it more in line with how I want it to be. If my ego desires to perceive itself as slim, fit, and sexually attractive, I will diet, exercise, or perhaps have some reconstructive surgery. If the ego desires to perceive itself as powerful and lordly, it will perhaps go through the machinations of establishing a business venture with many employees and a visible impact on society. If the ego desires to perceive itself as spiritual in nature, it may learn how to meditate and bask in the glow of its newfound spirituality.
It is of course possible that any of these activities can be undertaken from a benign or practical standpoint, rather than from strictly ego-driven purposes. I might exercise for sheer physical exuberance. I might start a business out of necessity or simple interest. I might learn to meditate out of a genuine inspiration to achieve clarity and understanding. But more often than not, our motivations and goals are infused with the potent tinge of basic ego, like the cartoon character Snoopy: 'Here's the up-and-coming entrepreneur, well on her way to impressive accomplishments and a daunting reputation,' or equally, 'Here's the down-on-his-luck jilted lover, taking solace in well-warranted existential angst.' Whatever your scenario of the day, there is no great mystery in this aspect of our experience. We all know what this ego is and how it operates; we all know we 'have' one, and we all know everyone else 'has' one.
From a Bohmian perspective, our deepest, unarticulated assumptions about this ego process are called into question. But unlike many other lines of contemporary discourse, Bohm's approach is distinctly not a process of reformulating or redirecting the ego, shuffling and substituting one image for another in endless succession. Nor is this questioning an intellectual pastime intended to discuss some novel, avant-garde theory of the ego. Finally, it is most certainly not a game of 'Gotcha!' in which the inevitable display of ego-structures is seized upon as a dialogical prize.
He often referred to the ego as a 'thought god', analogous to the 'rain gods' we sometimes find in various ancient or aboriginal cultures.
In what way, then, does Bohm ask us to question the ego? To begin with, he suggests that we loosen our assumption that the ego is a real thing. He proposes that the self-image may be a kind of imaginary display, a fantasy character used to give coherence to the massive amount of stimulation that floods us every second. He often referred to the ego as a 'thought god', analogous to the 'rain gods' we sometimes find in various ancient or aboriginal cultures. By this he meant that peoples such as the ancient Greeks seemed to have looked for a simple way of explaining the vicissitudes of rain, thunder, and lightning, and came to the conclusion that there was an entity - a rain god - who was behind the scenes, causing weather to happen. Similarly, in the midst of the constant flow of thoughts and impressions that make up our consciousness, we yearn for continuity and coherence, and thus project an image of 'me' - a thought god behind the scenes, causing thought to happen. This attribution, of course, is not spontaneously invented anew with every person. We receive ample help from our social environment when we are very young, learning unconsciously how to construct this sense of inner entity and invest it with meaning.
But what if the self-image is really only 'there' when we look for it (continuously), think about it (compulsively), remember it (reflexively)? What if the feeling of 'me' is a product of the flow of thoughts, rather than the source of them?
In most of the literature available on dialogue, Bohm uses the term 'assumptions' to signify the activity by which the ego navigates the world. He of course recognizes that from a common-sense, practical perspective we need to have certain working assumptions. We must assume that our car is likely to start when we go to work in the morning; we must assume that our circle of friends and relations is at least somewhat reliable and stable. But navigating the physical and social world via practical assumptions is not what causes most of the confusion and difficulty in our lives. It is, rather, our assumptions about who we really are, and how the world should be in relation to us, that cause us frustration, anger, and dissatisfaction.
However, the shorthand language of contemporary dialogue discourse tends to leave intact the most basic assumption of all - the assumption of the solidity and primacy of the ego. In marginalizing sustained and pointed questioning of the ego per se, the current dialogue discourse leaves open a stance in which one may question all manner of one's own assumptions, and the assumptions of others, but rarely if ever question the basic existence or seeming solidity of the ego itself.
We could think of this version of questioning assumptions as serial-horizontal. In this approach we question assumptions in a perpetual sequence, as though we were driving along a flat desert highway, 'questioning' each new item that appears through the windshield. This process is indeed central to the practice of dialogue, and is by any measure a valuable and enlightening exercise. But our minds tend to be organized in such fashion that the loosening of one strongly held assumption will eventually be followed by the strengthening of another one, or the re-emergence of the old one in a new guise. We can go on this way for years, perhaps a lifetime, examining the topical features of the ongoing parade of assumptions that passes through our consciousness. All the while, the ego - the 'mother of all assumptions' - remains conveniently shielded from scrutiny by tacitly positioning itself as the one who is examining the serial assumptions.
holistic-vertical questioning of assumptions is more akin to an archaeological dig, in which we stay with one assumption in a sustained way, ferreting out its generic structure, rather than simply surveying its topically salient features
But if we sense that this approach could indeed go on endlessly without really revealing the core of our problems, then we may be inspired to explore an alternative. Amply provided in Bohm's larger body of work is a complementary approach to assumptions, one which is holistic rather than serial, vertical in addition to horizontal. This holistic-vertical questioning of assumptions is more akin to an archaeological dig, in which we stay with one assumption in a sustained way, ferreting out its generic structure, rather than simply surveying its topically salient features.
In a serial approach, I might examine my ingrained prejudice against very fat people who live in trailer parks. If I am persistent and sincere, I might gain insight into the causes and limitations of this prejudice, and thus free myself to a greater or lesser extent from this prejudice. Next week, I might examine my assumptions about the motives and intentions of CEOs of multinational corporations. Through this examination, I will perhaps uncover various fallacies, and arrive at a less restrictive view of such individuals.
In addition to questioning the assumption, we are now questioning the questioner
In a holistic approach, I may well engage in exactly these serial processes, but with one additional, and crucial, hypothesis: Each particular prejudice or assumption I examine in sequence is but a temporary display - an advertisement, if you will - of a deeper generating source: the sense of ego itself. From this perspective, to ignore my deep assumptions about the existence and veracity of the ego, in favor of examining its display du jour, is very likely to result in an endless recycling of modified assumptions. But if I am willing to see the particular assumptions/displays as flags indicating the more generic patterning of the ego, it may be possible to enter into a genuinely new order of insight. In addition to questioning the assumption, we are now questioning the questioner.
In exploring the terrain of the self-image, it is all too easy to slip into a highly abstract and intellectualized version of our experience. As suggested in the previous section, being 'aware' of assumptions can become a repetitive habit like any other, a closed intellectual loop that never proceeds significantly beyond the surface of experience. As a complement to the initial emphasis on 'thinking through' the nature of the self-world view and its assumptive process, Bohm proposes that we use the body as a source of immediate, concrete feedback for our inquiry. While this emphasis on the body is fairly apparent in Bohm's source material on dialogue, the secondary literature has tended to minimize or altogether eliminate this aspect of the dialogue process. In this section we will review in some detail why Bohm sees the body as an indispensable component in deepening our understanding of both ego and dialogue.
The most immediate way we can utilize the body - both in and out of the dialogue process - is to recognize the body as a highly sensitive and accurate display for disturbances to the self-image. To do this, Bohm suggests that we expand our attention - usually focused on our mental reactions arising from provocations to the ego - to include the physiological correlates of these reactions. These correlates are not mysteriously hidden away; they are readily apparent if we are open to seeing them. Consider, for example, that one of my core values - women have the right to choose whether to abort a fetus - is vehemently challenged. In addition to my likely thoughts about the challenger ('This person is venal and reactionary ... he is only concerned about imposing his views on others ...at the very least he is misguided and ignorant'), I will also have a cluster of physical signs of disturbance. My heart may begin to beat faster. My adrenaline may begin to surge. My jaw may subtly clench. My posture may rigidify.
In normal social intercourse, we may (a) ignore these physiological signals through force of habit (b) bulldoze our way past them in order to find a new zone of equilibrium (c) take them as implicit proof of the rightness of our position. In all such cases we tend to fall into the default mode of thinking our way forward - we marshal an array of intellectual arguments and justifications for why our view is right and good, and why the challenger 's view is wrong and bad.
However, in such a scenario there is always a phase in which both aspects - the physiological manifestations and the internal verbal cogitation - are simultaneously present. Bohm's suggestion is that at this very point, we experiment with diminishing our reliance on the 'thinking habit', and allow the physiological correlates to come more clearly into felt awareness. This in no sense means suppressing the thoughts, but something more like a figure-ground reversal, in which our typical structure of our awareness - with thoughts far more dominant than our physiology - is reversed, with the physiological responses now coming to the foreground.
Honest attention to the signals in the body will often give a very different picture of what is happening in our experience than the ego would like to imagine.
There are a number of reasons why Bohm suggests experimenting with this figure-ground reversal, and a comprehensive assessment of them all is well beyond the scope of this essay. But two points in particular warrant scrutiny. First,there is the 'truthfulness' aspect of the body. Honest attention to the signals in the body will often give a very different picture of what is happening in our experience than the ego would like to imagine. If someone has said something that has hurt or offended us deeply, we have a lifetime of practice at acting outwardly as if this hurt did not occur. And once this process of obscuration is set in motion, we often go so far as to deny - even to ourselves - that we are hurt. But close, sustained attention to the body, alert to signals like those mentioned above, makes it difficult to maintain the habit of obscuring the actual nature of our experience. One effect of giving attention to the body is thus to bring our conscious awareness more closely in line with what is actually occurring.
Second, as we attempt to read the information of the body, and move toward closer alignment between what is actually happening and what we would like to think is happening, we will inevitably encounter a certain degree of conflict. This conflict is directly attributable to physiological information that is contrary to my self-image. My body tells me that the attitudes and words of a person I am in interaction with frighten and threaten me. But the self-image says, 'This is absurd. I shouldn't be threatened by this person or their views. I can't be weak or vulnerable. I must find a way to regain my solid ground.'
It is exactly the structure of this experience, and its many variations (which include the seemingly opposite experience of gratified self-validation), that can lead us to the edge of the generic self-world view and open the possibility of an entirely new way of relating to ourselves and others. For in such moments we have a vividly clear display of the inner mechanism by which the ego sustains itself and its fixed views of the world.
On the one hand we have the body and all that it is signifying: uncomfortable impulses, uninvited surges of energy, uncharitable thoughts and images, all swirling and mixing in a dynamic that is, at least inwardly, out of control. On the other hand there is the apparently stable and unchanging 'internal watcher', the one who notices these bodily signals and either approves or disapproves of them, directing or redirecting energy until some satisfactory equilibrium is found (this 'watcher', not coincidentally, is identical with the 'questioner' we visited earlier). In trying to clarify the nature of what is happening in such moments, our first task is simply to be distinctly aware of these two processes: the movement of energy and impulses, and the sense of an internal entity who is watching these.
We are now in a position to notice a subtle but palpable oscillation of neuro-physiological energy that occurs when the 'observer' attempts to categorize, judge, alter, redirect, validate, or suppress the display in the body. With a bit of persistence, it becomes increasingly natural and easy to tune in to this oscillation. It is sensed as a kind of 'extra' or 'added' impulse, often in conflict with that of the initial bodily responses. One variation of this would be the case of self-justification or validation, where the bodily display would be 'sanctioned' by the watcher - in which case the added impulse would likely be one of pleasure rather than conflict. But in either case the relevant factor is the reflexive emergence of the 'extra' impulse, not whether it is conflictual or pleasurable.
'being aware' arises from all our faculties - cognitive, physiological, and affective
Once we acquire some familiarity with this dynamic, we can experiment with what happens if we do not sanction the impulse to categorize or act upon what is displayed in the body. We may instead simply be aware of the whole of what is going on: the initial thinking habit, the initial physiological correlates, and the emergence of a watcher which injects an additional level of discernable energy. In this case, 'being aware' arises from all our faculties - cognitive, physiological, and affective. We both 'see' and 'feel' the simultaneous presence of thoughts, feelings, and the watcher, but without trusting and following the impulsive interjections of the watcher.
In this way we arrive at a radically new orientation. Normally in the course of daily life, we follow the dictates of one of two masters. Either we follow our random thoughts and urges, or we follow the implicit dictates of the inner watcher, which monitors the random thoughts and urges, judging and directing them in one way or other. But now we are watching the watcher, as well as all else that is happening. This particular awareness is not a disembodied, bird's-eye, 'objective' view, such as occurs in many kinds of introspective analysis; nor is it the perspective of a so-called 'neutral watcher', which is usually nothing more than a shift in positioning of the ego. To the contrary, this awareness is completely within all that is occurring. It is alert to all cognitive, physiological, and affective movements, yet curiously, it also partakes of these movements, and is in some essential sense grounded in them. Rather than awareness from the 'outside looking in', this is more akin to awareness from the 'inside looking out'.
The novel, even strange aspect of this approach is the implication that we are capable of conscious awareness that does not in any fundamental way depend upon the ego. In large part this seems strange because our culture does not recognize or assign value to awareness that is de-coupled from the ego, much less provide tools and support for its development. In fact, quite the opposite is more often the case. We are trained from a very early age to (a) produce this inner distinction between observer and observed, in which the ego is felt to be the vital living source of all thought and awareness (b) assume the validity of this structure so thoroughly that it passes out of conscious awareness (c) invest total trust in its efficacy. But in our current inquiry, this deep cultural conditioning is turned on its head: awareness is now seen as primary; thoughts flow from awareness; and the ego, far from being a 'real thing', is merely a reflexive display resulting from ingrained thought patterns.
Interestingly enough, we have ample everyday evidence for awareness that is decoupled from the self-world view. Moments of shocking beauty in the natural world, intense sexual communion, deep immersion in work or sport - all of these indicate a momentary loss of self in which we are nonetheless intensely aware. But these moments are fortuitous, and are all too easily romanticized or compartmentalized. When approached in this manner, such awareness is made into an object of desire by the ego, which invariably resurfaces and reflects longingly upon these moments. In this way an ironic cycle of confusion is engendered, in which the absence of the ego is desired by the ego.
Here however, we are suggesting that this same heightened awareness can be accessed in the midst of our most mundane and taxing moments. Bohm's perspective allows us to utilize the generic appearance of the ego itself as a means of prompting awareness. By using the body to bring to light the oscillation between the watcher/ego and neurophysiological energy structures, we need no longer look to 'special moments' for an opportunity to prompt basic awareness. In the act of watching the watcher, awareness is fully present, at least momentarily.
Further,we can now see a new relationship between serial and holistic suspension of assumptions. It becomes increasingly clear that the watcher and the assumption are one and the same structure - they are both products of thinking. When the watcher is thus no longer given privileged status as a central entity, but is apprehended by awareness in the same way that any other assumption would be, the distinction between serial suspension and holistic suspension collapses. Every serial observation becomes a holistic observation; the observation of each superficial assumption gives access to the entire generic movement of the ego process, rather than to some isolated fragment of this process.
From this inclusive Bohmian perspective, we thus find that the body is the gateway to a remarkable wealth of unexpected information. Clearly, if we marginalize and downplay the significance of the body, we lose access to this information. But new information,in and of itself, can be meaningless. What then are we to make of this new information? What, if anything, does it have to tell us?
"A change of meaning is a change of being."
'A change of meaning is a change of being.' Increasingly in his latter years, Bohm was fond of broaching and contemplating this statement. It is an enigmatic statement, not least because the words meaning and being are notoriously difficult to define. If asked to define them, we may come up short for a verbal definition, yet still have an intuitive sense that we know what they mean, a kind of feeling for what they actually refer to in our experience. At the very least ,'meaning' seems to suggest something of value or significance - people, places, events, or ideas that are in some way important in our lives. And at the very least, 'being' seems to point to our actual existence, our sense of presence and vitality.
In following through Bohm's proposal that our self-image is inseparable from our view of the world, and that this mutually arising 'self-world view' is the operant basis of our experience, we now come to a pivotal question: If the demands of the self-world view can dissipate, even if only in short bursts, what are the implications for our meanings and our being?
Bohm has suggested one possibility - that rather than clinging to fragmentation, isolation, and territoriality, we might begin to discern a participatory universe, one in which conceptual boundaries and sharp definitions are tools only for use in the moment, rather than serving as crystallized identity structures. Perhaps in such a participatory universe, communion and fellowship are natural features of the topography. Perhaps in such a universe, intrinsic human warmth - currently locked down or carefully channeled in so many of us - is common currency, part of the shared meaning of nature and society.
Am I willing to take risks for the possibility of new understanding, knowing there can be no money-back guarantee?
If Bohm is even partly right when he claims that the mind-body continuum is concretely related to the deepest orders of the universe3, then a change of meaning may open us to these orders, bringing us face to face with new aspects of being that are only vaguely intimated by our current world view. It is up to each individual to then ask: Do I want to live the rest of my life playing out yet another variation of contemporary values? Am I willing to test the boundaries of my self-world view, in order to glimpse a larger, perhaps very different universe? Am I willing to take risks for the possibility of new understanding, knowing there can be no money-back guarantee?
Such questions lie at the heart of Bohmian dialogue - not as fad or theory, but as the deepest promptings of our humanity. To the extent that questions of this order are ignored in favor of technique, it is perhaps inevitable that Bohm's vision of dialogue will degenerate into the algorithms of the workshop and seminar circuit. But if such questions can be revisited and revitalized, then this vision may still find good soil and contribute to a new and radical creativity.